March Faculty Spotlight - Rob Siston

Posted: March 31, 2020

Where is your hometown?

I grew up in Strongsville, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland. Currently, I live in Dublin, Ohio.

What is your field and what made you pursue it?

I research biomechanics, which “is the study of the structure and function of biological systems by means of the methods of mechanics.” (Herbet Hatze, 1974). Biomechanics research can be found all around us, from the design of new orthopaedic implants, to physical therapy programs, to prosthetics, to exoskeletons, to movies, and to sports performance (just to name a few).

I got interested in biomechanics for personal reasons. I played with construction kits and watched a lot of shows and movies like Inspector Gadget and Star Wars. Luke’s bionic hand did, and still does, pique my interest. I was also interested in biomechanics from knee injuries I had in middle school, a broken hip from a car crash in high school and a lifetime spent stuttering.

For a more detailed version of Rob’s story and career path, read more here:

What brought you to Ohio State?

I was a student here from 1996-2000 in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. I loved my time here as a student for a variety of reasons; my wife would say that meeting her would have to be on the top of that list! She is from Republic, OH, and similarly loved her time here as an undergraduate. There’s special something about this place that really can’t be put into words. As I was finishing up my PhD, we both agreed that we wanted to be within driving distance from our families in Northern Ohio and that, someday, the dream would be to return to Ohio State. As it turns out, we returned in 2006, which was much sooner than either of us could have predicted.

Why should a prospective student consider mechanical or aerospace engineering?

These disciplines can change the world. In normal times, people often consider more traditional applications of these disciplines such as advances in automotive transportation, air travel, space travel, satellite communication. But, training in these disciplines can prepare students for so many other careers. I’m reminded of that during these abnormal times, as I’m tying these answers during the COVID-19 Pandemic, and the applications of mechanical engineering to medicine are immense. During this outbreak, modern manufacturing methods (e.g., “3D printing”) are being used to create and sterilize personal protective equipment. Mechatonic design principles are being used across the country to innovate on new ventilators. Principles of DNA origami could someday lead to a novel treatment for this virus and other diseases like cancer. Engineering are developing ways to treat burn wounds, exoskeletons to help people walk, and novel instrumentation to improve the outcomes of surgery.

What do you like most about your job?

With the interests that I had and the goals that I set out for myself to reach, I long ago wanted to find a career where I would be able to 1) do research to improve how other people moved 2) teach 3) interact with students in a college environment. All of that added up to becoming a professor. Without a doubt, the relationships I have with students are the best part of the job. I’ve been on faculty since 2006 and keep in touch with some students from all 14+ years of teaching here, whether that is just on social media, texting, or seeing them in person. The relationships with students past and present make this the best job in the world.

What advice would you give students considering majoring in engineering?

My best advice is to ask for help when you need it. Getting a degree in engineering is challenging, and you’ll eventually you’ll find yourself struggling with something that you’ve never faced before. Maybe you’ll be in a class where you are having some difficulty…and then you’ll find yourself in another class where you don’t have a clue as to what is happening! For years, my standing advice to students has been “to go office hours.” There, you can not only get help on the concept where you’re struggling but also you’ll develop relationships with the professor that can turn into letters of recommendation or research positions (or, in my case, one of my professors from my freshman year read at my wedding!).

However, that academic advice has evolved over the years. More recently, I am seeing some students struggling with life decisions, such as deciding on whether or not to attend graduate school and trying to find a job. Other students are struggling with eating disorders, mental illness, or other health-related issues. In all cases, students assume that 1) “everyone else has got it figured out, so there must be something wrong with me” but 2) “I’ll figure it out on my own.” Students majoring in engineering have been successful academically for years, which is probably what leads them to major in engineering. But, eventually, they find a problem that they can’t solve on their own and not only get stuck, but feel like something is wrong with them because, perhaps for the first time, they don’t know the “right” answer. I would advise them that asking for help, whether on a homework problem or for a more serious health condition, is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength.

What is one hobby you like to do indoors to stay safe and healthy?

I really like cooking and baking, and I currently find myself with a lot of time to do it, too! As of late, I’ve been baking a lot of bread and making healthy desserts.

As an aside, I used to teach capstone for years and asked the graduating students to do a special project in their final quarter here (back when we were on the quarter system). The assignment was “identify something you always wanted to do, but have never done, and do it or identify a problem in your life and fix it.” I was surprised that “learn how to cook” was the most common project that students chose. They all expressed frustration at spending so much money eating out, how fast food in particular isn’t the healthiest choice in the world, and a general frustration of not being able to do this seemingly common skill (I think it was an affront to their ego as an engineer!). Even after just 10 weeks, students expressed that they were making healthier choices and were saving money.

Category: Faculty